That’s not peace you’re feeling A reflection on discernment

Over the years, I’ve had quite a few people express that they know they have made the right decision because they feel at peace about it. Sometimes that’s true (obviously), but not always. More than that, what we experience as “peace” can be misleading and exactly the opposite of the right choice. Don’t ya just love it when things are in no way clear? Continue readingThat’s not peace you’re feeling A reflection on discernment

God himself will provide the lamb Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

I want to warn you, out of the gate, that I’m going to do a little less “Here’s how we live as Christians” in this homily. I want to take this as an example of the Catholic way of reading Scripture. As we dig through the bible, both Old Testament and New, these sorts of things present themselves. We just have to pay attention and keep immersing ourselves more and more in the Word of God. Continue readingGod himself will provide the lamb Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

Will you preach the Transfiguration or this rotting flesh? Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

Will you preach the Transfiguration or this rotting flesh? Homily for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 2017

By: Fr. Joe Fessenden August 9, 2017


I preached this homily at Saint Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee on Sunday, August 6, 2017. I know the intro still says Deacon Joe, but I was ordained a few weeks ago, so I am now celebrating Mass as Father Joe. The website will catch up soon, I promise.

Setting the stage

I would like you to put yourself into this story for just a moment. You are there watching (I don’t know – maybe you’re a lizard – or a cat – they’re all over in the Holy Land!) as Jesus sets out with Peter, James, and John to climb the Mount of the Transfiguration, according to tradition, Mount Tabor. They come to the top, and it is nighttime (that’s implied from a few parts, but I don’t want to take too much time on that fact – just realize that that brightness they saw must have been even more spectacular in the dark of the night).

They come to the top of the mountain, and Jesus takes a few steps away from the three and two more figures appear before him.

Ok – let’s talk a few details here that warrant reflection.

First: Jesus was standing

I know the picture on the front of the bulletin has Jesus floating in the air. You will see that after Mass – I know no one got a bulletin already to be reading it during my homily. Far be it from me to contradict Raphael (the artist, not the turtle), but the language (and several of the Fathers) indicate that Jesus was standing. (Lapide references Mark, but Luke seems to be the one who says something about “standing”.)

I think this fact is actually rather important. The transfiguration is not alien to us. Jesus is not up in the clouds. It is not the end, it is a hint of what is to come. Jesus’ feet are on the ground just as ours must be as long as we are part of the Church Militant, that is, as long as we are alive on earth.Just like it was for the apostles – this took place just before the passion – It is for us so that we might be able to keep going, so that we might see the end and know that there is a reward coming. There’s something more than this life.

Don’t get me wrong. This life is not unimportant. It is our only chance to make the decisions that will have eternal ramifications. However, this life is not the most important thing. While we are on earth, we must keep our feet on the ground. We must look to eternal life while forming this world into what God meant it to be from the beginning.

Second: Peter wanted to stand still

Peter didn’t know what to say. He wanted to build tents – tabernacles – and to stay on the top of the mountain. Two lessons can come from this.

First, we can never stop and stay in those experiences, the experiences that you may hear called “mountaintop experiences.” These experiences always point to the future. We can never just say, “I made it. This is faith. This is religion. This is my relationship with God. I’m there.” We must always be growing in our faith. Faith can never be stagnant – no relationship can. It is either alive and growing, or it is withering and dying. Those are the only two options.

By the same token, just like Peter wanted to build tents (tabernacles) and stay, we cannot make our entire faith sitting here with our tabernacle. Yes, our tabernacle contains the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but the whole reason he has come to us in this form, in the form of food, is to give us strength for the journey on earth. There are those whose lives are meant to be devoted to time with him in the tabernacle – that’s what cloistered religious orders do – but even they are charged to pray for the world. But each of us has our role in the world, in the Church:

Cloistered religious pray for the world.

Active religious (like our own Nashville Dominicans) work in the trenches as the extension of the Church into the world.

Clergy (like Fr. Nick and I) give to the laity the tools they need – through teaching, guidance, and the sacramental life – to fulfill their role in the world.

So then, the laity, you. What’s your role in the world? You are not passive bystanders. You are the ones who have the (rather intimidating) job of making the world into what God meant it to be when he created it, before the fall, before we messed it up. You have the job of bringing the Gospel into the streets in your lives. You have the job of bringing the Gospel to the water coolers and coffee makers in offices.

Prayer is the Transfiguration of the Soul

We have the chance for our own transfiguration. We have the opportunity to get, for ourselves, the strength that the apostles, and perhaps even the humanity of Jesus, found in the Transfiguration. It is in prayer – private prayer, lectio divina immersing ourselves in the Word of God, and public liturgical prayer and sacraments – that we transfigure our souls. When we pray, we elevate our souls to things of heaven.

It is prayer in all those forms that allows us to meet our calling – whatever it may be. Left to our own devices, we will surely fall short. But, with God’s help, we can transform not only ourselves, but the world.

Transfiguration was a foretaste Resurrection of the Body, not heaven.

Finally, let’s talk end times for a moment. What do we have to look forward to? We often think of ourselves as looking forward to being disembodied souls in heaven. But that is not our end. There will come a time that each of us will have our bodies and souls reunited. That’s what we will profess to believe in just a few minutes at the tail end of the Nicene Creed (when we may have gone on auto-pilot): I believe…in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

But our body at the resurrection will not be the body that we have now that eventually withers. Instead, it will be like the body that Jesus showed at the Transfiguration. It will be like his glorified body after the resurrection.

God will lay down a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. At that point, our bodies will be transfigured. And we will spend eternity either at peace with our creator in the new creation or separate from him.

Conclusion

When we are here at Mass, we see the most beautiful Transfiguration when we see, with the eyes of faith, bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. But then we have to leave this sanctuary and enter the mission fields. When we leave this Church, we will all be preaching something out there in the world. What will we be preaching? The Transfiguration or this rotting flesh?

The Woman at the Well Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Cycle A

The Woman at the Well Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Lent, Cycle A

By: Fr. Joe Fessenden March 21, 2017


I preached this homily on the Sunday, March 19, 2017, the 3rd Sunday of Lent, at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Gospel was John 4:4-42, the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well.


Who is this woman?

Why were the disciples amazed?

The easy answers always come to mind. She’s a woman who’s not his wife. She’s a Samaritan woman, so a Jew can’t talk to her. She’s a notorious adulteress.

Any of these might be true, but I think there’s one that tells us even more. The disciples were good Jews. They knew their Torah, the stories of the Patriarchs in Scripture.

What happened when a patriarch met a woman at a well in the Old Testament?

  • Isaac’s servant met Rebekah at a well.
  • Jacob meets Rachel at a well (this same well, by the way).
  • Moses met Zipporah at a well.

What happened when a patriarch met a woman at a well? Wedding bells!

Now, we all know that Jesus didn’t marry the Samaritan woman, but she is symbolic of his bride – The Church – us.

In the next 35 minutes, I want to hit on three points for us to take from this Gospel passage when we walk out of those doors at the end of Mass.

Five Husbands

The woman has had 5 husbands, lords, or in the Canaanite language, “Baals.” What husbands, baals, and idols can we find in our past? Even more importantly, what idols are in our lives today that prevent us from encountering Jesus?

Money?
Sex?
Success?
Work?
Popularity?
Pleasure?
Sin?

What stands between us and the true God? All of us have something. If we are honest with ourselves, we all have a sinful past like the Samaritan woman – we may even have a sinful present (let’s face it, to a greater or lesser extent, we all do). We need to identify our sins and idols so we can carve them out of our lives and turn toward him who wants that relationship with us.

If we have serious sins on our soul, we must get to confession and throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord so that he can draw us into an encounter of love with him. We need to seek forgiveness for those sins through the Sacrament of Reconciliation so we may worthily approach the Eucharist at Mass.

That is the reason for this season as we prepare to celebrate the feasts that commemorate our redemption, the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord. In Lent, we are called to embrace fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to help us get into the right state of mind and heart to be lifted by the Lord’s mercy. You just heard that call in the opening prayer if you were paying attention – and if you weren’t, here it is again.

O God, author of every mercy and of all goodness,
who in fasting, prayer and almsgiving
have shown us a remedy for sin,
look graciously on this confession of our lowliness,
that we, who are bowed down by our conscience,
may always be lifted up by your mercy.
(The Roman Missal, Third Typical Edition Third Sunday of Lent)

This is the first lesson today: Find our idols. Remove them. Cut them out. Confess them so the mercy of God can flow into us.

The Preaching of the Samaritan Woman

So the Samaritan woman had that encounter with Jesus. What happens next? She leaves behind that which slows her down, her water jar, and runs into the town to proclaim to everyone the encounter she has had.

Do we feel excitement when we encounter Christ?
In others?
In the poor?
In prayer?
In Scripture?
In the Sacraments?
In the Eucharist?

Do we feel enough excitement to go out and tell everyone we know? Not because we want to proselytize, but because we feel so much passion and joy that we just can’t hold it in?

When is the last time you saw an amazing movie? How often do we see a movie, then tell everyone we know, “You have to see this movie!” Why don’t we do that with Christ? I have a hunch that it is because we have not truly encountered him. We are often so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t realize how close he is to us, so we never have that joy that he wants for us, that joy that overflows because we just can’t hold it in. As Christians, little Christs, we are called to be always ready to point people to the love of Christ that we have experienced.

How much does he love us, then? In the words of Paul:

For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

If we truly believe in that love, how can we not do something with it? That’s lesson number two: each and every one of us is called to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ with every moment of our lives.

I Thirst

We need to come to Jesus, though. He will not break down the door to our houses.

He is waiting at the well for us.
He’s waiting in the tabernacle for us.
He’s waiting in the Scriptures for us.
He’s waiting in the poor and downtrodden for us.
He is waiting.

We approach him, and he says, “I thirst.” He thirsts for our faith, for our love – not because he needs it but because he knows it is the only way we can be truly happy. And, because he loves us, he wants us to be happy. He desires that so much that, even though he is exhausted from his travels that day, when the woman comes, he seizes the opportunity to draw her in to himself.

This is the third lesson we need to take from this: even when we are too tired to take another step, we are called to follow the example of Christ and evangelize. It is important that we are always watching for those opportunities arise if we truly love our neighbor as we are commanded.

Three points

So, I want us to walk away from Mass today with three things in mind.

1. If we are to be ready for an encounter with the Lord, we must be free of our idols and our sins.

2. When we have that encounter, Christs own love will well up inside of us until it overflows – let it.

3. If we are to show the love of Christ, we must be aware of those opportunities, even when we thing we are too tired to do anything, to take one more step. That is when we are called to show the love of Christ and pour out the last drop of ourselves, trusting that the Jesus’ love is, and will remain, “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14, NABRE), a spring that will never go dry.

With Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest Homily for Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Lent, Cycle 1

With Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest Homily for Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Lent, Cycle 1

By: Fr. Joe Fessenden March 16, 2017


I preached this homily at St. Rita Parish, New Orleans, Louisiana on March 16, 2017.

The Gospel was the well known story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. When you are called home, will your soul be light because you emptied yourself out, or will you be weighed down by taking and taking until you have everything?

Pop Culture

I am a big fan of finding the truths of the faith reflected in pop culture, and, if we look hard enough, we always will. I mentioned a few in this one, and I want to make those available, here.

Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins

The Book Thief

I was introduced to this book by a friend who teaches in middle school. I happened to visit her classroom several times while she was teaching through this book. If you want to buy a copy, here’s the Amazon link: The Book Thief
This is the passage from the book I mentioned.
(If you plan to read it, probably best to just skip this part, and read it when you get there.)

He was tall in the bed and I could see the silver through his eyelids. His soul sat up. It met me. Those kinds of souls always do-the best ones . The ones who rise up and say, “I know who you are and I am ready. Not that I want to go, of course, but I will come.” Those souls are always light because more of them have been put out. More of them have already found their way to other places. This one was sent out by the breath of an accordion , the odd taste of champagne in summer, and the art of promise keeping. He lay in my arms and rested. There was an itchy lung for a last cigarette and an immense, magnetic pull toward the basement, for the girl who was his daughter and was writing a book down there that he hoped to read one day.

The Fisher King

This is a great movie, but it is a bit adult at times. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it – just don’ t watch it with the kids. Here’s the little bit I mentioned.

Watch the whole scene from the movie on YouTube here.
(Warning: It has some foul language, and he describes a rather vulgar hypothetical scenario.)

Here’s the whole homily

Don’t worry. Be happy. Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

Don’t worry. Be happy. Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C

By: Fr. Joe Fessenden March 2, 2017


I preached this homily at the Church of the Assumption in Nashville, Tennessee on February 26, 2017.

The readings for that Sunday are:

First Reading Isaiah 49:14–15
Response Psalm 62:6a
Psalm Psalm 62:2–3, 6–9
Second Reading 1 Corinthians 4:1–5
Gospel Acclamation Hebrews 4:12
Gospel Matthew 6:24–34


In 1988, one of the great poets of the twentieth century wrote these words:
Here’s a little song I wrote
You might want to sing it note-for-note
Don’t worry, be happy
In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry, you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy

Ain’t got no place to lay your head
Somebody came and took your bed
Don’t worry, be happy
The landlord say your rent is late
He may have to litigate
Don’t worry, be happy
Bobby McFerrin’s song is a bit of a silly little ditty, but there’s a great truth in it. He is echoing one of the main themes in Jesus’ message this week as we continue to make our way through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gives several illustrations to try to get it through to us that we need to trust in God instead of being overcome with worry.

This isn’t the only place that the Lord points out that “worry” is a challenge to those who would follow him. Recall that he says the same to Martha when she asks him to order her sister, Mary, to help her with the chores. ” Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…” (Lk 10:41). “And distracted.” That’s the problem with worry. This Greek word we find in both of those passages comes from the root that means ‘to divide.’ The problem when we start worrying is that we lose sight of the God who loves us so much that our very existence is an act of his love. The God who loves us so much that, even if a mother forgot her child (Mothers, how likely is that?), he would continue to love us and to see to it that we receive what is best for us. Remember, what is best for us sometimes won’t be what we think we want or what we ask for – we must never think that this promise has been broken because God says no.

Jesus started with that famous, “you cannot serve both God and mammon.” That is, you cannot be divided (notice the theme here?). I always wondered what this word “mammon” is. Why doesn’t Jesus say “money” if that’s what he’s talking about? ‘Mammon’ is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word for wealth and possessions. It is derived from a word that means “believe, trust”; thus it means “that in which one places trust.” Here, mammon is personified and portrayed as a master; Jesus is calling our attention to how our possessions can come to possess us. We can become enslaved to our wealth and belongings, constantly worried about maintaining them or seeking to acquire more. If we are preoccupied with building up treasures on earth, we are serving mammon, and we cannot give to God our total, undivided service.

Great! Awesome! God is going to take care of me, so I can sit back and let him do it. Sweet. Sadly, that has already been promoted in history, and the Church saw the danger in it – she condemned it under the name “quietism.” This was already present in the first days of the Church, even. St. Paul says to the Church at Thessalonika, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). In the other extreme on this spectrum, we have the Prosperity Gospel, the so-called “Health and Wealth Gospel” that can be seen proclaimed from the pulpit of any number of televangelists. That is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ! It’s telling that one of the most successful of these preachers has removed the cross from his stage. The cross is the central image of the Gospel – all things lead to it and flow from it!

So what does this look like? If these are the wrong interpretation, what is the right one?
Let me ask you a question?
What is your goal in life? Is it success or God? Is it pleasure or happiness?
Which is more important: the week or the weekend? Do we work all week so we can afford to have the weekend off, or do we have the weekend off so we can recover from work and start fresh on Monday? Would it surprise you if I tell you that we are MEANT to work so that we can have leisure, so that we can spend time drawing close to God? The work week is at the service of the weekend, not the other way around!

If someone looks at you, what does it look like? What will that person think you seek as your first priority?

This is the big test of if we are acting in accord with Jesus’ call and our identity as God’s beloved children. Work isn’t bad. Money isn’t bad. Material possessions aren’t bad. But they are all tools. None of them is an end unto itself. Each of these exists for one and only one reason: to give us the opportunity to know God. The old Baltimore Catechism distills the purpose of life beautifully:
Question: Why did God make you?
Answer: God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. (Baltimore Catechism Q.6)

Everything we do must have that as its purpose. My friends, that is your job in the world. To work in it and, through your lives and your own work, day in and day out, to perfect it for God. My job is to continue to, through prayer and sacraments (right now, only a few sacraments, but soon more), to give you the spiritual tools to do that. Together, we, as the Church, prepare the world for the return of our Lord. We keep our eyes fixed intently on God and judge every word and action we say by checking who we are serving. We hope that, when the end of our time on earth arrives, we will leave the world just a tiny bit more after the image God intended for his creation. We trust in God to give us what we need, both physically and spiritually, to fill in what is lacking in our best efforts. We remember this each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer; pay attention to those words when we say them in a few minutes. “Give us this day our daily bread.” This “daily bread” has two meanings: the needs of our lives on earth and the Eucharist, the bread of life that brings us, in Christ, to everlasting life. After all, Jesus promised that: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” We have to ask ourselves, will we trust our God and creator or assume he is a liar?

I have come to fulfill the Law Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

I have come to fulfill the Law Homily for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

By: Fr. Joe Fessenden February 13, 2017


I preached this homily on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at Our Lady of the Rosary parish in New Orleans, Louisiana. The readings are Sirach 15:15–20, 1 Corinthians 2:6–10, and Matthew 5:17–37.


To Fulfill the Law

The Law (Commandments) are the bare minimum. The Beatitudes, which we heard a few weeks ago, represent approaches to the world. Here, Christ outlines the perfection to which the Law pointed from the start, the fulfillment he has come to make possible.

 

Reward and Punishment

Rule of thumb:

  1. Jesus makes the external observances internal virtues.
  2. Anything that was rewarded temporally is now, in its more perfect form, rewarded with the promise of communion with God.
  3. Anything that was punished by physical death in the law is punished by spiritual death (and the risk of eternal separation from God) in Jesus’ perfection of the law.

In other words, if we obey the law, come to Mass, and fulfill the bare minimum requirements of the Catholic faith, we may avoid hell, but we do not attain that perfection that gives happiness, eternal communion with the triune God. we leave the greatest reward in creation, a reward of happiness we cannot even imagine, on the table.

However, If we develop the virtues in our souls, if we seek the perfection of our heavenly Father, if we strive every moment of our lives to live in the perfect love made possible by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our eternal reward will be great.

And notice external observance is not enough. The observance must be internal, in the heart, and so exceed that of the Pharisees – their external observance was impeccable, but their hearts were not in it.

The Individual Instructions

So that this homily is not 40 minutes long (and Fr. Powell does not hurl a hymnal at me), I would like to focus in on just two of Jesus’ instructions, here, but I invite you – I urge you – to break out the Bible at home, open that nice plastic packaging, blow the dust off of it, and spend time with the rest of these on your own. This whole of Matthew’s fifth chapter gives the outline of living the Christian life on a day to day basis.

The Law says you shall not kill, but whoever is angry will be liable to judgement

Here, we have to understand whoever is angry without cause. Righteous anger is not a sin. Anger against sin, detesting sin, even hating sin, is not against Jesus’ command or spirit. Desiring justice is not against his will. It is when this anger stops looking for justice, but instead begins to seek revenge, then it has hardened our hearts.

Now, I know we all think our anger is just, but that guy’s isn’t. Let’s face it, though. Deep down, we all know when our own anger is just or not. At least I do. And I pray God gives me the grace to let go of that anger when it comes at me.

Notice also, anger is an emotion. If something happens, and I respond (without a truly just cause) with an immediate “grr” and grit my teeth, that is not a sin. That’s an emotion. An emotion with no act of the will cannot be a sin. However, when I start nursing that anger, that wrath (and if we are honest, we have to admit that we all do that at times), we begin to plumb the depths of sin.

This is where that development of virtue comes in, though. That initial response, even though it is not itself a sin, tells me that I still have virtue to develop. If I am to be perfect as my heavenly father is perfect, I respond in charity and love, not in anger, even before my brain takes over from my emotions.

You shall not commit adultery

I was once told by a priest about a group of second graders’ first time in confession. They had clearly been prepared by their teacher with the 10 commandments. Several of them kept confessing – and these are second graders – “I committed adultery.”

Finally the priest asked, “What do you think that word means?”

The child, with all the innocence of a second grader, said “Acting like an adult.”

Jesus reminds us that committing adultery is certainly a sin. But he extends the meaning of that commandment. It is not only the external act of committing adultery that is a sin, but the action of the heart. Here, though, the translation we have in the lectionary doesn’t do a very good job of rendering what’s being said. Jesus is not challenging just the presence of lust in my heart, though, clearly, the presence of that lust again indicates the need for growth in virtue.

Jesus’ language is that of purpose. He who looks after a woman for the purpose of lusting has committed adultery with her in his heart. Ladies, you aren’t off the hook here, I have it on good authority that you have that same challenge and temptation as the guys, though it is certainly sometimes different.

The sin comes when we forget that a person has an absolute dignity by being formed in the image and likeness of God. When we reduce another person to being an object for our own pleasure, either in thought or in deed, then we have sinned against them and against God.

Jesus Does Not Mean a False Love

Now, with all that, I have to challenge each of us. Nowadays, some of Jesus’ words here are often disregarded because of his instructions elsewhere, “Do not judge…” (Mt 7:1) or “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39). It is important that we understand all of this in its proper context and avoid the false love that the modern world frequently encourages. Jesus calls Christians not to less, but to more; not to a lower bar, but a higher; not to an easier life, but a perfection that is only truly possible in God.

Love is not simply accepting someone for whatever they do and whatever they choose and whoever they think they are. “Love is to will the good of another” (CCC 1766, ST I-II.26.4 corp). To will the good of each other is to will their greatest good and happiness, the good that comes in knowing and loving God. Sometimes, that will mean calling our brothers and sisters to task if they are not living up to the Christian life.

What parent among us, if we see our child reaching to touch the hot stove, would just allow them to do so because that’s what they think they want? Of course not. We would stop them and teach them that will not bring they happiness they think it will or that they want.

Conclusion

Jesus means every word he says here. He means that we must avoid internal sin and grow in virtue. He means that Christian marriage is a permanent sacramental state that can be dissolved by no power short of death. He means that we must forgive each other in the same way that desire forgiveness for ourselves. In short, he means that we must seek to “Be perfect…as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). These instructions, though we will, frail and faulted as we are, frequently fall short, are how we do that.

So which path will we choose? Our Lord has set two paths before us: eternal life and eternal separation from God, the perfection of our heavenly father and the mediocrity of this world. We must each pick which we will choose, and it is not a decision we can delay. As for me, I will strive every day of my life to serve the Lord (cf. Joshua 24:15) so I can hope for that reward that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived” (1 Cor 2:9).